Is there such a thing as being “too religious”? A related (but hardly identical) question: “Can we be too observant?”
This week’s Torah portion begins:
“Judges and officers shall you set for yourself in all your gates which Adonai your God gives you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18). This noble vision is understood not only as an injunction affecting courts and public policy, but also as a highly personal commandment, affecting each individual and all intimate relationships. The latter interpretation defines “gates” as bodily portals: ears, eyes, nostrils and mouth.
To place “judges” at these passages means to be judicious about what we absorb from and release into the world. What filters do we use to protect ourselves — and our neighbors? Air quality and carbon emissions are easily measured. What is the quality of the spiritual atmosphere in which we live, and what “spiritual emissions” do each of us generate? The internal judges charged with guarding the gates must face these tough questions.
Particularly during the month of Elul, in preparation for the High Holy Days, we endeavor to awaken our inner judges and officers. We blow the shofar, sounding the alarm, rousing ourselves from lethargy. We review the past year, evaluating, judging.
While ears and nostrils have no cover, and eyes have just fluttering eyelids for protection, the tongue — which is said to have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21) — has two protectors: lips and teeth. The Talmud imagines a conversation between God and the tongue: “I enclosed you behind two walls, one of bone and one of flesh … you deceitful tongue” (Arachin 15b). Considering how people hurt one another and themselves with words, we desperately need effective bulwarks.
This calls to mind the watchword of the Men of the Great Assembly: “make a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1). In other words, don’t take your speech or behavior to the “edge.” Allow for slippage. Build in safeguards.
Countless times, this instruction yields wisdom, restraint or, simply, a needed buffer. Lighting Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset is a prime example. In the realm of business ethics, marginal practices are just that: marginal, on the line. A fence around the Torah demands higher standards — and more clearance.
However, there are limits and costs to building fences around the Torah.
Recently, a learned Chasidic friend told me that many women in her community are confused about modesty. Custom has been conflated with law, and new stringencies are frequently added “just to be on the safe side.” As a result, the essential rules and intentions behind them have been forgotten. Some women decide that it’s all excess and fail to observe limits, which their rabbis deem necessary; others take on burdens, which their rabbis never imposed.
Fences offer protection, but they also impede easy access and communication. Part of how children learn about limits is by blowing past them occasionally. While no one — least of all a rabbi writing a Torah column — would endorse the violation of Jewish law, our deepest understanding of the law typically comes from locating its precise boundary, not from surrounding it with oversize fences. The talmudic rabbis carefully ferret out exceptions to the exceptions of a law. They spend copious pages and prodigious intellect to understand the limits of Sabbath prohibitions, so that Jews can enjoy every permitted pleasure on Shabbat.
In my life and in the lives of people I have counseled, I find that the times when we violate sacred boundaries — whether they are community-approved or purely a matter of individual conscience — are tremendous opportunities for growth. We learn in our bones what it means to commit an aveira, a sin (literally, a crossing over, a transgression). Having “crossed the line,” we can now see it clearly — and we have important decisions to make. How will we repair what we have broken? How can we ensure that this transgression won’t happen again? Do we need additional safeguards, at least for a time? How can we nurture the righteous judges within, help them stay vigilant and hold them accountable?
Rabbi Abbahu taught: “In the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand” (Talmud Berachot 34b). The experience of sin allows us to feel remorse, to connect more deeply with God and conscience, to overcome temptation, to do teshuvah (repentance). With repentance, our prior sins become a source of merit, because the reversal is so great a triumph and a lesson (Talmud Yoma 86b). It is a nes — a miracle for us and an announcement (literally, banner) for all the world.
May you heed your inner officers this High Holy Days season and mend all necessary fences. May you judge yourself and others with “righteous judgment” and with the lovingkindness of the Judge who sits on the throne of mercy.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and served Makom Ohr Shalom (makom.org), a Jewish Renewal synagogue in Tarzana, for most of that time. This is her last column, as she has “repatriated” to New Jersey, where she is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson. You are invited to stay in touch with her and to access her teachings through rabbidebra.com.